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WWII vets get a chance to revisit the past via planes
Historic planes

WWII vets get a chance to revisit the past via planes

Lee Gissler stood on the asphalt for a long five minutes just staring at the B-17 Flying Fortress parked at the Billings Logan International Airport on Friday.

In World War II, Gissler was a flight engineer and top turret gunner in a B-17, stationed in England. He flew 31 missions, he said, and came home each time.

Eventually, he walked up and explored the plane. Slowly, visitors at the airport -- who had come to see the vintage Fortress, a B-24 Liberator and a P-51 Mustang -- came up to him and started asking him about his wartime service.

Had he wanted, Gissler could have gone up in the B-17 and taken a 30 minute flight over Billings. He smiled at that. No, he said, he had his fill of the B-17 with his bombing runs over Germany.

"That was enough," he said. "I'm not going to fly in it anymore."

Through Monday, the National Wings of Freedom Tour will be at the airport with the three vintage restored WWII airplanes. Tickets to climb into and explore the planes on the runway are $12 for adults and $6 for kids. Flights in the planes are $425.

The tour is run by the Collings Foundation, which sees its collection as a mobile WWII aircraft museum.

"It's a way to personally connect with World War II aviation," said Chuck Gardner, the P-51 pilot.

The B-24 on the tour may be the only one in the world still flying. For Billings resident Frank Stoltz, that was enough.

Stoltz, who was part of a B-24 crew in WWII, had not flown in a Liberator since he was shot down in one over Germany in 1944.

"When the Messerschmitt shot up our tail, there was nothing left to do but hit the silk," he said.

They bailed out and landed in a potato patch where they were quickly picked up by SS soldiers.

"When I saw the skull and crossbones and the SS (on their uniforms), I thought I was goner," he said.

Instead of killing him, they took him to a prisoner of war of camp in Poland. There, Stoltz ended up participating in the Black Death March, an 86-day, 600-mile march across Poland at war's end that had 10,000 poorly dressed, malnourished prisoners of war living on roadside dandelions and battling frostbite as their German escorts raced to keep the captives hidden from the advancing Russian Army.

During his flight Friday, Stoltz rode in the tail of the plane and looked pleased to be where he was. In fact, he described the flight as "a thousand times better" than the ones he took during the war.

Midpoint during the flight, Stoltz walked around the tail section of the plane and grabbed one of 50-caliber waist guns and pretended he was firing on enemy planes.

He scooted his way across a narrow catwalk inches above the bomb bay doors and got a view of pilots flying the aircraft in the front of the plane. Returning to his seat, he said he was satisfied.

"The flight was awesome," he said. "It brought back some memories."

Contact Rob Rogers at rrogers@billingsgazette.com or 657-1231.

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